Summer Serenade

The Elgar Chorale Summer Concert 2019

Review:  “Summer Serenade”- The Elgar Chorale, St George’s Church, Worcester  – 22.06.2019 

The imposing houses of St George’s Square and the majestic Church in which the Elgar Chorale, under its inspirational Director of Music Piers Maxim, chose to present their Summer Concert, set a perfect backdrop for the programme of English music which they presented to an appreciative audience.

The concert opened with a choral fanfare, Blow up the Trumpet by John Rutter. It certainly had the “Wow” factor and set the standard for everything that followed – great tone and balance, well-controlled dynamics and attack, coupled with clear diction. Britten’sHymn to St Cecilia showed the choir’s ability to sing softly and maintain an impressive legato line. Sopranos and tenors executed very neat, fast phrases with clarity and precision. 

Pianists, Penny Vere and Euodia Jordan, played Capriol Suite by Warlock with panache and style! Here we revelled in a really fine performance. The benchmark for duettists is to make the pieces sound as if only one person is playing and this they achieved with consummate skill. 

John Rutter’s five Birthday Madrigals followed. A lovely jazzy feel to It was a lover and his lass was helped by neat, crisp consonants. However, the overall balance was not quite so good. Draw on sweet night had some lovely, quiet, legato singing throughout the descending phrases – tricky chording and harmonic shifts caused slight intonation problems. Come live with me was more assured and the choir handled the syncopated rhythms and chording well.  My true love was gentle and displayed some beautifully sensitive singing. The final piece in this set was When daisies pied –a lively, jazzy piece which provided a great finish. Penny Vere’s piano accompaniment to these songs was exceptional. 

What was to prove the “jewel in the crown” for this concert was Now sleeps the Crimson Petal  – words by Tennyson and set to music by Dr Donald Hunt – founder and conductor of the Elgar Chorale. He wrote this as a Golden Wedding Anniversary gift to his friends, Ken and Audrey Wright and those present were privileged to be at this world premiere of Dr Hunt’s last composition. Donald Hunt’s deep understanding of writing choral music was clear for all to hear. For me, the musical idiom was reminiscent of the French composer, Pierre Villette, whose choral music Dr Hunt had championed, not only in services and recordings by the Cathedral choir, but in performances by Worcester Festival Chorus and in the Three Choirs Festival.

Written a cappella, it was beautifully crafted by a composer who understood how to write well for voices. The opening was very mellifluous, exploring the full vocal range of the voices and featured lovely harmonic shifts, interspersed with bass solos answered by choir. Quiet unison voices and heart rending discords followed by gently flowing legato chordal sections and culminating in a beautifully quiet, sustained ending. This performance by the Elgar Chorale was in the safe, sensitive and experienced hands of Piers Maxim and could not have been given a more perfect first performance. 

After the interval, the choir performed Five Flower Songs by Britten. These miniatures allowed the choir to display their wide range of skills. After a somewhat tentative opening, To daffodils settled into a peaceful mood and had some lovely sustained tone. The succession of the four sweet months with sopranos, altos, tenors and basses following each other and coming together to negotiate, successfully, some very tricky chording. Marsh Flowers was declamatory at the start with some upward rushing glissandi and challenging chords. The Evening Primrosewas slow, gentle, well-handled and contained some sensitive moments with nicely managed harmonies.The Ballad of Green Broom was quite lovely and rhythmically complex. It required some extremely fast diction and concluded with an impressive upward rushing glissando.

Five songs from Nonsense by Richard Rodney Bennett followed. Unashamedly in jazz style for choir and piano duet, they allowed the choir to display its full range of skills in coping with music that challenges. Of particular note were Romantic and rich sounds in How Fly the Birds,  the swaying parody of the Eton Boating Song in The men in Bowler Hats and the big Romantic movie feel in Lean Sideways. The piano accompanists were amazing!

An exquisite Choral Amen by Rutter concluded the listed programme, but Piers Maxim wisely reprised Donald Hunt’s Now sleeps the Crimson Petal. This second hearing reinforced what a beautiful and apt setting of the words this is and what a distinguished composer, conductor, organist and musician Donald Hunt was.   

James Morgan